Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Chomping Through Animals

For over 12 years until some two years ago I was a non-meat eater. I put it like this because I did eat fish, and indeed fish made up 'the gap'. Because I was a non-meat eater it meant that my mother too was mainly a non-meat eater and then, at least with my purchases, so was my wife.

This partial vegetarian period started not just for ethical reasons but also for religious reasons. I was at Unitarian College for a year from 1989, when the vegetarian question was present (it works like that, it goes around your head like a niggle) and then I left in 1990 with no religious involvement anywhere for one and a half years. Then I started attending a Western Buddhist group, not just as a sort of meditation consumer, but going to their houses and joining in more fully, and this was the spur to becoming at least a non-meat eater. I decided when at the Sea of Faith Conference to take the vegetarian option, and from then on did that everywhere.

In the latter years of not eating meat, having been in New Holland for a time, there was a sense of no support for not eating meat. For example, a church bash would fry and roast, and to be vegetarian was virtually not to join in. Meals with friends and there were always meat based, and my wife wanted meat and my mother liked to have bacon in particular. Then there was the pub grub at quizzes too, which started meat eating as an allowed exception but in the end meat crept in elsewhere.

Now my budget is so tight I have to buy food that is economical, and given my lack of cooking skills I cannot any longer afford the supermarket based vegetarian meals that performed as a centre for added vegetables. Of course the fish eating goes on, but varieties of fish are expensive too, and suddenly the fish I eat is a lot less than it was. My compromise, if it is that, is that I go to a butcher for choices that provide a centre for a meal, but even then I have given way to a packet of 20 sausages for £1 at Lidl (the only supermarket 'meat' I have bought). I think one can safely say that these 5p each sausages have much else in them that is not meat, and I'd rather have a couple of butcher's sausages for taste than five of the ones in a packet of twenty.

The Buddhist argument for not eating meat is a moderate one, and does allow for practicalities (like cutting down to fish) and it is about the development of your self towards a selflessness that relates to the other. You can't do that if you have to take a sentient life to eat, because what you are doing is staying in the sticky goo of the samsara you wish to peel away.

Now Christianity has a different view, which is that we are stuck in the sticky goo anyway. Christianity is a materialist faith, and one where redemption into something more like paradise will come from without. This for many is a sufficient excuse to go on chomping their way through the animal kingdom as food, plus they will dig up something of a natural theology that there is a food chain and we may as well eat up. Paradise might come, but not yet, and hasn't so far, and even won't.

So Karl Barth called this "Just Meat Eating" in the same sense as there is a "Just War". There is some humour here, as if the chap won't eat his vegetables. On the other hand, there is a view that Christians should reflect the grace of God and make an effort to reflect this Kingdom that Jesus Christ himself reflected - one of service and sacrifice. The animals might be sacrificing themselves in the food chain, but the sacrifice ought to be ours as indeed service ought to be at the core of kingship over the natural world.

I think the argument of service and sacrifice taken alone stands up, but the Christology argument does not. The problem is that Jesus sacrificed animals as an observant Jew and he also chomped his way through a good meat meal. The Seder meal would have its roasted lamb on the plate along with the bitter herbs and egg and the rest.

The argument then put is that he was a man of his time, but for a trinitarian argument this is a cop out. After all, if he is fully God and fully man, and perfectly sinless, then this ought to be demonstrable and visible. Now the analogy can be given that he did not pick women disciples, and so was a man of his time, and thus he equally chomped his way through animals.

But this won't do. Whereas one might accept he didn't pick women to head any of the twelve tribes of Israel, and this might not be regarded as sinful, and he showed compassion regarding women, and of course women have leading roles in elements of the Christian story, the issue of animal eating is closer to the bone (so to speak). So there is a public recognition issue regarding women of leadership, authority, and legitimacy connecting him and the tradition later on. But surely we have a right to expect that the trinitarian God the Son shows a vision of that Kingdom in his very being, that the paradise to be is walking around and on personal matters eats his greens. In other words, if he was sinless, he was sinless.

It is said that he was tempted, thus human, but was sinless. I'm sorry, but the equivalent of this is that meat is put on his plate but he doesn't eat it. To say he was just a man of his time on this issue is such a cop out it either destroys a trinitarian dogma or it is all right to go on eating the flesh including in paradise. Not only this, but in the stories of Jesus there is the one where released demons (that have made a person sinless, healthy and prepared for the Kingdom) are transferred to some piggies who then run off and jump over a cliff to their deaths.

The Christology then that supposedly supports the vegetarian effort is contrived. However, a theism that supports the vegetarian effort is credible. Andrew Linzey (1987) argues for what he calls theos-rights, and this sets up a contrast with simple this-wordly human rights and animal rights. The language of rights is used because of the legacy of scholasticism in the Church, and thus the sense of rationality and law has to be addressed, but whereas human or animal rights have to be argued in a legal sense (in the same way that law becomes established: conflict, power, consensus, via something like a court of opinion formally and informally), theos-rights are about the grace of a sovereign God into spirit-filled creatures.

Indeed this draws on the central Christian insight that law is fulfilled and grace replaces legalism. There is some Christology in this, of course, but the focus is on God as love with action as a gift, and our Being (under God's Being) is therefore equivalent of that gift that should not be violated. We ought not to look gift horses in the mouth, let alone eat them.

So whereas human rights have to be argued, and then animal rights have to be argued, theos-rights are more simply a given across creation. Some of the biblical clues to theos-rights are in Genesis, specifically the opening of life as a kind of paradise of eating vegetation that then gets muddied by reality and a food chain. So the highest response to the spiritual gift is to stop chomping one's way through animals, and despite Jesus's own inability to do this, we should if we can choose the path of peace towards building a future paradise. Indeed, Jesus far from being a vision in his being of the Kingdom coming, is just another participant in the world as it is, spirit filled but of the same inadequacies, as indeed he was when a foreign woman said the dogs (even dogs) could have the crumbs under the table. Jesus learned something that day, as they say, because the woman changed his mind, but no one changed his mind regarding his diet (well it's not mentioned anywhere).

But are even theos-rights as secure? Well, perhaps not, in this sense. They also have to be argued. However much Karl Barth might like to think otherwise, things don't just drop out of the sky. So the argument for theos-rights has to be made, along with human rights and animal rights. Then, in addition, not everyone believes in God, or a God that gives grace, so the argument is undermined by unbelief. The argument in the latter case has to be about human rights and animal rights, and must focus on the tangible.

The God argument is better coming from below (as Bishop John Robinson might have put it), from the tangible, if theos-rights are to have a more universal mileage. It can go something like this. We humans are conscious, and biology meets culture: and what's more, through language, we record our past and we know that we die. That gives our life a narrative shape of meanings, and the totality of that meaningfulness is our connection with what might be called Godness. It's that height where pointers up to what includes and yet transcends the mundane start to join up. We cannot be sure there is a joining-up, but there is at least a clue of transcendence, and it comes from culture and speech and, well, just life pointing upwards. And as a result you start to say that life has an overall meaning, a story, that gives its value, and then you start to come down with the overarching all that was just about met when going upwards. There is a lot of as-if about this, but life is often about what-ifs.

Now animals are different from humans, and by degrees, as are humans between themselves of course, in terms of biology and consciousness, in terms of a culture and language. But - and this is important - small understandings are big inside them. The mentally handicapped, the dementia-ridden, has a big life within that small or crippled mind-universe. The knowing is confused or less obvious, but it is a whole, and value is not on a sliding scale comparative from one person or creature to another. Life experienced is big experience. The dog who gives biological (and a sort of cultural) loyalty to its owner, the pack leader, and luxuriates in the life of walkies and the food given and the comforts, and who tunes in to that environment and its pack leader's changing tone of voice, is living a very full life. So is the poor dog running around a back street that must stay alert and find something to eat in a bin.

It is the fullness of life, positive and negative, that can be turned around to translate into a kind of grace about that fullness of life. It's of Nietzsche's Yes to life, to say yes if this treadmill is to be reincarnated in an ever repeated Groundhog Day.

We are all evolved creatures with some sharing in consciousness, even the little insect that does what it does automatically, and the fantastic evolution that has individual creatures serving the mass of the species in any one place. And on top of that sharing, comes the interaction. When the bees vanish, we humans are going to be in serious trouble, and we had better treat their honey and how it appears with some reverence.

So this approach, then, is not particularly Christian, and it is irrelevant whether it is or not. What it is about is some quality that is within the conscious mind, even of a tiny bit, but it is very obvious in a conscious mind that considers its own consciousness and that of the other.

It is that sense of unity that demands empathy and sympathy, and that unity which is a form of quality that then, as such, distributes a kind of grace. When you are conscious of being conscious, you really have to be a psychopath (or a trained killer) to not have that sense of empathy or sympathy. And then, of course, the role of religion is to give that empathy and sympathy a little push and development - through teachings, rituals and meeting people in an attitude of service and sacrifice.

This is what the Buddhists do and it is what Christians do. In the Christian tradition it is a fact that the left wing has been more focused on this issue and sympathetic, whether it is an Albert Schweitzer with Unitarian sympathies or Liberal Catholics when they leaked into Theosophy and the East. It is religions that developed in hot, sweaty countries that developed compassion for animals also struggling along and that sympathy and empathy needs extending.

Theos-rights have much to commend them, but they do have to be argued from below; Christology has less to offer.

See Linzey, A. (1987), Christianity and the Rights of Animals, London, SPCK, 68-98.


Erika Baker said...

The cheap sausages you talk about are definitely not meat, but that doesn't mean they're not animal product.

One of my daughters has recently become a non-meat eater and so the whole family is more or less switching with her. It's no more expensive than meat eating.
Have you considered investing in a simple vegetarian cookbook? Or better, google recipies online? Teaching yourself to cook takes no longer than a week or so.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

This is the unstated point, of course, that my cooking skills amount to little more than heating things up. Obviously I can make salads up! To be honest the 'guilt factor' regarding those 5p each sausages outweighs their price, and their flavour only happens with overcooking, and they are no better than vegetarian impersonation sausages.

A church person gave me a Cooking for Kids booklet, but it's meat again. I will return to non-meat eating, it's just a case of when and probably does depend on employment and also, despite their goodwill towards me, stop eating at/ with church events/ church people who are friendly, helpful and sympathetic. There is no doubt that if mixing in a Buddhist community and eating together at times, as once I did, the food would be altogether different.

Good that you're joining this pattern, and I do think it is right, it is just that I'm one who fell away like the alcoholic who spent twelve years dry and is now back in the gutter.

Erika Baker said...

Try googling "vegetarian cooking for kids" or other permutations of it. There's a huge amount of material out there.

Really, learning to cook is not complicated, if it was, there'd be far fewer people doing it.